By Andy Staples
January 06, 2011

THOMASVILLE, Ga. -- When does the service begin at Paradise Missionary Baptist church? When Lizzie Mays clutches her duct-taped Bible and starts to sing.

Mays, 81, joined the church at age 12. On the third Sunday in December 2010, Mays sits in the pew nearest the pulpit and watches through Coke-bottle glasses as the stragglers file into the humble building on South Pinetree Boulevard. When the doors close, Mays picks up that Bible and wails.

"God is in my veins!" she sings, and the rest of the congregation of about 40 joins in. The song fills every empty space in the room. No one needs a hymnal.

As the congregation's senior member calls the flock to worship, one of the youngest members sits behind the pulpit wearing a navy blue suit and a look of pregame anticipation.

Ray Drew Jr. has entertained crowds on Friday nights in recent years at Thomas County Central High, mauling opposing quarterbacks with startling regularity. But Drew does his best work on Sunday mornings. He's been preaching since the eighth grade, and he has promised a visitor that he has something special planned for his sermon on the Sunday before Christmas.

Drew knows his days at Paradise are winding down. This Sunday, he won't be in church because he'll be returning from San Antonio after playing in Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. This summer, he'll move to a new town. He'll take classes, deliver sermons and rush passers at Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, LSU or Tennessee. But before he leaves, the top weakside defensive end in the Class of 2011 rankings plans to stir some souls at his home church.

As he studied his Bible looking for a sermon, Drew seized upon the Christmas story itself. He considered the tale of Mary in Bethlehem with husband Joseph for the census with nowhere to stay. He imagined the scorn heaped upon a pregnant woman claiming to be a virgin. He thought of the manger itself, such a humble setting for the event Christians consider the most important in the world's history.

Drew decided he would deliver a simple message. Ignore outside appearance. Focus on the inside.

Drew opens his sermon with a reading from the book of Matthew, then begins to shape his message. "Sure, people talked about Mary ... They called her a liar," Drew says, drawing several all rights and more than a few amens from the congregation. "They called her everything but a child of God. But with Mary being a child of God herself, she knew that it wasn't about what people were saying on the outside, but what the lord was doing on the inside."

Drew, 18, realized he wanted to preach when he was a seventh-grader. He remembers lying in bed one night, half awake and half asleep. He saw a vision of an outstretched hand. He started to cry, and his mother, Pam, came to his room to check on him. He told her what had happened, and she told him to go back to sleep. The next day, she called Drew's godfather, Corey McGee, a pastor at a church in nearby Moultrie, Ga. McGee told his godson he'd been called to preach. This made sense to Drew. After all, when the other boys were reading the Three Little Pigs, he was reading about the three Hebrew boys and King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel.

"I knew I wanted to preach," Drew said. "But I didn't know it was going to come that soon. ... I could have tried to run from it, but eventually it would have caught me."

Within a year, Drew stood before a congregation.

For his first sermon, Drew chose the story of Abraham and Isaac. His message: The lord will provide. Looking back, Drew believes the nervous first-time preacher needed to hear the message just as much as the flock did. "I didn't know how I was going to deliver the sermon," Drew said. "I didn't know how people would react to it. All I knew was the lord will provide."

Drew tells the congregation that everyone is guilty of forgetting the meaning of Christmas every once in a while. "They don't even want you to write out the word Christmas anymore," he says. "They want you to call it X-mas. How in the world are you going to cross Christ out of his own day? ... We forgot what happened inside that manger. It's time to get back to reality and remember the real reason for the season. It's all about the inside."

As his preaching skills grew, so did Drew. Playing for the same high school that produced Heisman Trophy winner-turned-NBA-star Charlie Ward, Drew grew into a 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback-wrecking machine. Drew is lean enough that he could add another 20 pounds and not lose a step.

He even brings church to the football field. After he makes a tackle, he doesn't cuss the ballcarrier. He says "God bless you." Drew believes that sometimes this unnerves opponents more than a stream of insults. "It gets in their head a little bit," he said.

Still, Drew needs to develop his on-field mean streak. The young minister may have to act a little more Old Testament to overcome college offensive linemen.

For that, Drew couldn't have a better hero. He relishes tales of the exploits of late Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White. White, who was an ordained minister, used football to help spread his message of faith. But he never turned the other cheek on the field. Drew has learned that through conversations with White's daughter, Jecolia.

In fact, some have suggested that Drew, who has yet to be ordained, might be the next Minister of Defense. Drew balks at the notion. There is only one Minister of Defense, and that's White. Drew would prefer another nickname. "The Pastor of Pass Rush," he said with a wide smile.

As Drew really gets rolling, he lapses into a half-talking, half-singing staccato that hypnotizes his audience. After each pause, the amens pour forth from the pews. "Anybody can dress up, but that doesn't mean all is going well," Drew says. "The $300 suit that you have on is worth about as much as the dirt." With that line, Drew sets up the congregation for the big payoff.

The coach who signs Drew will get a player who can fill two positions -- defensive end and chaplain. Eddie Edwards, the senior pastor at Paradise, believes Drew has a natural gift for preaching. "He's just a soul-stirrer," Edwards said. "It's captivating how he allows the spirit to use him."

Drew plans to play football for as long as he can, and he'd love to become a broadcaster when his career ends, but none of that will keep Drew from standing in the pulpit every chance he gets. Preaching, he said, is the most challenging and rewarding experience he can imagine. "Standing up in front of the congregation," he said, "you're responsible for someone's soul."

Drew has lathered up the crowd. Now it's time to drive his message home.

"Let's just say that I didn't have on this coat," he sings as he takes off his suit jacket. "Would you look at me any different?"

"Now what if I didn't have on this tie?" he sings as he yanks off his tie. "Would you look at me any different?"

"This shirt that I have on, it doesn't make the person deep down inside of me," he says, tugging at the buttons on his white dress shirt.

"Would you love me just the same if it look like I'd been beat within an inch of my life?" With this, Drew rips off his dress shirt to reveal a Thomas County Central football shirt that appears to have been shredded and dragged a mile down a dirt road.

"Would you still look at me the same way if I looked like I'd been drug through the mud. Would you still love me? Would you still embrace me?"

"Somebody here is looking at my outward appearance right now, but I'm trying to get you to look past the outside and go deep down on the inside. Would you still throw your arms around me and say I love you? I'm still the same child of God that I was when I had on my suit, when I had on my tie and shirt."

"It's not about what's on the outside, but what's on the inside."

The church rocks with applause. In the pew nearest the pulpit, Lizzie Mays is in heaven. The young man gets it. She offers an amen after every sentence. Pam Drew is beaming at her son. In the back of the church, Ray Drew Sr. can't help but smile. A few minutes later, the younger Drew wraps up his message. "May God bless you and God keep you," he says. "That's my sermon. It's not about what's on the outside, but on the inside."

As Drew steps aside, Rev. Edwards steps in.

"The preacher done preached," Edwards says. "Amen."

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